Keeping Your Colleagues Honest

Mary C. Gentile put together a great piece on how to challenge unethical behavior at work in the March issue of the Harvard Business Review: Keeping Your Colleagues Honest.

She starts with four rationalizations for staying silent when encountering an ethical problem:

  • It’s standard practice.
  • It’s not a big deal.
  • It’s not my responsibility.
  • I want to be loyal.

The meat of the article is about helping a manager to speak up when confronted with an ethical problem.

  • Treat the conflict as a business matter.
  • Recognize that this is part of your job.
  • Be Yourself.
  • Challenge the rationalizations.
  • Turn newbie status into an asset.
  • Expose faulty either/or thinking.
  • Make long-term risks more concrete.
  • Present an alternative.

I particularly liked her use of the rationalization argument.

“If people make the point that an issue is not your responsibility, you are in a strong position to press ahead—in using this rationalization, they have already conceded that the behavior is wrong, or at least questionable. They are not arguing with your assessment; they’re looking for a way to avoid the conversation.”

She also pulls out the New York Times technique on rationalization: “If it is expected , are we comfortable being public about it?” I usually amplify this to ask “Would you be comfortable with this being told in a story on the front page of the New York Times?”

The full article is behind the paywall at

Mary C. Gentile is a senior research scholar at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Her book Giving Voice to Values is forthcoming from Yale University Press in September 2010.